In 1895 the center of Libertyville was mostly destroyed by a fire and quickly reconstructed. One happy consequence is the rare architectural unity to the preserved downtown area today.
Not only is downtown Libertyville attractive, it’s bursting with stores and dining establishments, and has a dynamic events calendar, especially during the summer.
Many of these happen at the lovable Cook Park, at the foot of a fine house that belonged to a prominent 19th-century contractor and politician.
The Des Plaines River flows down the east side of Libertyville and has a multi-use path that leads through a chain of Lake County Forest Preserves and local parks.
1. Downtown Libertyville
Filled with interesting independent stores and eateries, Libertyville has the kind of downtown area that would be the envy of most towns.
This is preserved and promoted by a nationally recognized non-profit program called MainStreet Libertyville, which since 1989 has worked to make Libertyville a great place to visit, and dine.
One fantastic asset is Cook Park, a lovable green in the heart of downtown, hosting dozens of events during the summer, including the local farmers’ market.
Along Milwaukee Avenue are one-of-a-kind stores for designer homewares, jewelry, running gear, pet care, artisan chocolate, fashion and oriental rugs.
Here and there are restaurants, cafes and bars of all descriptions, whether you want pizza, sandwiches, tacos, fresh roasted coffee, craft beer, pan-Asian, Greek or Italian cuisine.
2. Des Plaines River Trail
Flowing south for 133 miles from southern Wisconsin to the Illinois River, the Des Plaines River forms Libertyville’s eastern boundary, flowing through parks and the Independence Grove Forest Preserve.
For almost all of its course through Lake County, the river is traced by a multi-use trail, for hiking, bicycling, horseback riding, as well as cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in winter.
In Libertyville the Des Plaines River Trail is a great way to get to local attractions, including two Lake County Forest Preserves and the lovely Adler Memorial Park.
Not far east of downtown Libertyville, this trail intersects with the North Shore Bike Trail, opening up even more destinations to bicyclists (Marytown, Lambs Farm but also the Lake Michigan waterfront).
3. Independence Grove Forest Preserve
A recreation paradise for local communities, the massive Independence Grove Forest Preserve, on Libertyville’s west flank, encompasses a 115-acre lake that was once a gravel quarry.
Surrounding the water are more than 1,000 acres of undulating woodland and prairie, laced with 7.5 miles of walking trails, with 6.4 miles of trails for biking.
There’s a marina on the lake, and spring through early fall you can rent fishing boats, canoes, kayaks, pedal boats and stand-up paddleboards here.
Next to the lake is the Millennia Plaza, an amphitheater staging summer concerts and festivals. Close by is the award-winning Visitor Center, completed in 2001 and featuring revolving natural history exhibits and a cafe.
4. Lambs Farm
Less than ten minutes east of downtown Libertyville is a sensational family-oriented attraction with a petting farm, mini golf course, pony rides and a miniature train.
Lambs Farm is operated by a non-profit offering employment opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities.
This organization has its roots in a pet store opened in 1961 near Gold Coast by Corrine Owen and Robert Terese, who had taught at a school for adults with developmental disabilities and employed 12 at the store.
In the mid-1960s the couple acquired this 72-acre plot, just east of Libertyville, and started building up the facility you see today. As well as family attractions, Lambs Farm has a garden & pet center, a thrift shop, country store and a cafe & bakery.
5. Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County
Managed by Lake County Forest Preserves, this museum in Libertyville is dedicated to the history of the county, touching on natural history, culture and art.
Sourced from a collection of more than 20,000 artifacts, the main permanent exhibit is a riveting, interactive chronology of the area, from prehistory to the present day.
This contains amazing fossil specimens, the history of the Native Americans who lived here for 12,000 years, Lake County at the American frontier in the early 19th century, and the industrial innovations that took place in the county at the turn of the 20th century.
Established in 1976, the museum is named for the county’s first official historian, Bess Bower Dunn (1877-1959). The museum hosts fantastic temporary exhibitions, which in recent years have included Ansel Adams photography and the history of blues music.
6. Adler Arts Center
David Adler (1882-1949) was an architect working mostly in the Chicago area, and specializing in country houses for wealthy clients.
These emulated the styles of traditional European architecture, and a number are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Adler’s own residence in Libertyville was a farmhouse from the 1860s that he purchased in 1918 and remodeled, mostly in the Colonial Revival style, with some Neoclassical flourishes.
This is now the Adler Arts Center, offering year-round activities encouraging “critical thinking and interpretation, participation, entertainment, and achievement in music and the arts for the people of Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin”.
This entails private music lessons, art classes, art exhibitions, a creative summer camp for children and an annual arts festival at Libertyville’s Cook Park in August.
7. Adler Memorial Park
Beside the Arts Center, the former riverside grounds are now an elegant public park on the Des Plaines River Trail.
On more than 100 acres, gently stooping to the river, Adler Memorial Park has a wealth of amenities, for passive and active recreation. One favorite is the nine-hole disc golf course, well maintained and with little maps for each hole.
This park is also the setting for Libertyville’s main outdoor public pool, a big attraction in the summer, with areas for lap swimming and leisure.
Adler Memorial Park also has a baseball/softball diamond, a playground, volleyball court, as well as plentiful picnic areas. In winter families visit for cross-country skiing, as well as ice skating and a fine local sledding hill.
8. Cook Park
As Libertville’s most central green space, the delightful Cook Park is the setting for all sorts of community events, especially in the summer.
This spot also harks back to the village’s origins in the 1830s, and was the site of a one-room log cabin built by the Vardin family in the 1830s. Cook Park is a lovely place to visit for a bit of repose or picnic in the summer.
Throughout this season the Village Band, made up of local volunteers, gives free concerts on Thursday evenings in the rose garden.
Cook Park is also the location for the Libertyville Farmers’ Market, as well as Lunch in the Park, (Fridays, late June to early August), with a diversity of local food vendors and live entertainment.
9. Libertyville Farmers’ Market
On Thursdays mornings, June through October, the Libertyville Farmers’ Market has been a part of local life in summer for more than forty years.
The market’s list of vendors grows by the year, and you couldn’t pick a better place to start if you want to support local businesses.
On top of that there’s a short supply chain, which means food provenance and the opportunity to chat with growers, makers and farmers.
As well as seasonal fruits and vegetables you can expect to find flowers, cheeses, garlic, homemade dips, spreads, confectionery, baked goods, honey, nuts, pet treats, to name a few. There’s always freshly made food on hand, from hot dogs to empanadas, crepes, pizza and sandwiches.
10. National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe at Marytown
A mile or two west of downtown Libertyville is Marytown, a lakeside campus that has long been home to a community of Conventual Franciscan friars.
In the year 2000, this location was chosen by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops as the location for the National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a martyr during the Holocaust.
Maximilian Kolbe (1894-1941) was a noted Conventual Franciscan Friar and theologian, sent to Auschwitz in 1941.
After an escape, the deputy camp commander selected ten men to be starved to death as an example.
One of the chosen men, Franciszek Gajowniczek expressed his anguish about the fate of his family, and Kolbe volunteered to take his place. Gajowniczek went on to live to the age of 93, passing away in 1995.
On 15 tranquil acres, the National Shrine features relics of Saint Maximilian, several outdoor shrines, a Holocaust exhibit and a gift shop & bookstore.
11. Ansel B. Cook House
One prominent figure in late 19th-century Libertyville was Ansel Brainerd Cook (1823-1898), a contractor and member of the Illinois State Legislature.
Cook installed Chicago’s flagstone walks in the 1860s and 1870s, and participated in the city’s massive reconstruction effort following the 1871 Great Chicago Fire.
In 1878 Cook ordered a Victorian house on the very site of Libertyville’s first log cabin, which had stood here some 40 years before.
He bequeathed this property to the village to become its library, and the building was given a grand Colonial Revival portico in 1921. The library was eventually replaced in the 1960s by the modern building directly behind.
The Cook House is now the headquarters of the Libertyville-Mundelein Historical Society and has a Victorian interior once more, with period-appropriate fittings and furnishings.
12. Heinz Orchard
People have been coming to pick apples at this picturesque, no-frills orchard for close to 70 years. Heinz Orchard is compact and family-owned, and opens for a U-Pick season around mid-September, remaining open until around mid-October.
A few of the apple varieties grown here include McIntosh, Jonathan, Empire and Red Delicious.
The crop varies by the year, and opening hours can be irregular, but everything is published on the farm’s facebook page. Most years Heinz Orchard also sells raw honey, harvested from its own hives, in 1lb jars.
13. Old School Forest Preserve
Taking its name from the defunct Bradley School, which stood on the land’s southeast side, this Lake County Forest Preserve in Mettawa is famed for its sledding hill in winter.
That feature is easily visible from the I-94, which passes by on the east side and separates Old School Forest Preserve from Lambs Farm.
The preserve covers almost 550 acres composed of small patches of prairie and widespread woodland with big old oaks. Walking the woods you’ll get a feel for what Lake County looked like when it was first settled by European Americans in the 1820s and 1830s.
The ideal to come is August when prairie wildflowers like purple milkweed and golden alexanders are in bloom.
14. Adlai E. Stevenson Historic Home
Not far southeast of Libertyville you can visit the house of Adlai Stevenson II (1900-1965), governor of Illinois from 1949-1953 and Ambassador to the United Nations under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
A highly influential political figure in this period, Sevenson was also the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the 1952 and 1956 elections, while his time as UN ambassador coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Stevenson Estate, dating from 1938 is owned by the Lake County Forest Preserve District. The main house has elements of the then avant-garde International style, with its cube-like appearance and absence of ornamentation.
There are information boards about Stevenson and his farm all around the estate, and for more insight you can join one of the regular guided tours given by the forest preserve district.
15. Pine Meadow Golf Club
Five minutes from downtown Libertyville is a highly-rated public golf course, opened in the mid-1980s.
Pine Meadow is particularly acclaimed for its practice facilities, considered some of the best in northern Illinois and set on two levels, all accompanied by a state-of-the-art fitting center.
You’ll find two putting greens, a chipping green and 30 grass tee stations below, while on the upper level are 30 grass tee stations, 30 mat stations, a practice chipping green and a green side bunker.
As for the course, this plays relatively straight, with fairways lined with blue spruce, and risk-reward situations created by several lakes, including the large Lake Schroeder, which comes into play on five different holes.